Trees versus tentsThe city government of Seoul and the extremist Our Republican Party are engaged in a turf war over the right to pitch protests tents in Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul. The city administration filled the space once occupied by the group, which is calling for the release of imprisoned former President Park Geun-hye, with big trees after it temporarily removed its tents for the visit by U.S. President Donald Trump over the weekend. The party vowed to return upon discovering plants stealing the space it had occupied since May.
As soon as the rioters moved out, Seoul installed 80 big potted plants on the square in the heart of downtown. It plans to add more leading up to the statue of King Sejong. Each plant cost 1.1 million won ($946), which means the city administration spent nearly 90 billion won to fill the pedestrian space with plants to shoo away the rightist group and its tents. The city has sent three administrative orders to the group to clear out of the square. It forcible removed the tents but the party returned every time. The city warned it will take all possible measures if the party camps out once more in the square.
The party is equally stubborn. Party co-head Cho Won-jin said his group will return with its tents by taking the legitimate procedure of applying for assembly rights around the square for a month. He claimed the party’s protest was legitimate and argued that no plants should impede its right of assembly.
The skirmish has made citizens uncomfortable. The square at the heart of Seoul has become an iconic location in Korea and one of the must-visit places for foreign visitors. The location was home to Red Devil assemblies that cheered on the Korean national football team in World Cup competitions and the people power movement in 2017 that ousted a president for corruption. Moreover, it provides a rare open space in Seoul for citizens to roam about. It is wrong for a political group to dominate the center of the space and restrict citizen use.
Still, the Seoul city government has been childish by filling the space with expensive plants just to supplant a certain political group. Most big cosmopolitan cities have large public squares. Can we not have one free of political banners and protests?
JoongAng Ilbo, July 2, Page 30.